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Saturday 1 November 2014

The cheers

Were TV3 to disappear tomorrow, who would miss it?" asked Tom McGurk in a column for The Sunday Business Post in June, 2002. Even though the question was posed by an RTE broadcaster, who would have a vested interest in seeing the competition fail, it was nonetheless a reasonable query and one to which the answer was obvious: nobody but the TV3 staff and shareholders.

It was all too easy to forget that TV3 even existed. You could happily go for weeks at a time without ever switching over to it, confident in the knowledge that, the occasional first-run film aside, you weren't missing a hell of a lot.

Four years on air and without the resources to seriously challenge RTE in the key areas of news, current affairs and sport, TV3 scraped by on a supply of imported dramas, comedies and reality-show tat from America and Australia, and simulcasts of ITV soaps, dramas and light entertainment dross.

At the time, TG4 (which Kevin Myers memorably dubbed "Telefis De Lorean" back when it was still called Telefis na Gaeilge) was surprising its early detractors by producing a range of original, offbeat programmes that appealed to a broader audience than hardcore Gaeilgeoirs.

TG4 was labelled The Little Station That Could; TV3, on the other hand, was The Little Station That Couldn't Be Bothered.

To say it was a joke would be a gross understatement. Whenever TV3 came up in conversation inside RTE, the snorts of derisive laughter emanating from the Montrose monolith could be heard echoing around the streets of Donnybrook.

The national broadcaster's highest-profile personalities regarded TV3 in the way the rest of us regard a cowpat after we've just stepped in it.

The decision, in 1999, to launch the three-hour breakfast show Ireland AM at a time when the channel couldn't cobble together a half-decent documentary, let alone a full series of anything, seemed bizarre to say the least.

Still, this was as nothing compared to the suicidal policy of running The Dunphy Show -- the Heaven's Gate of Irish television -- directly against The Late Late Show on Friday nights.

Even at the time it was obvious there would have been more of an appetite for a second domestic chatshow on Saturdays, and this has been borne out by the success of Tubridy Tonight. Like the ebony and ivory on Paul McCartney's piano keyboard, Eamo and Pat could have peacefully co-existed.

But as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. Things have changed rapidly.

If Tom McGurk -- who, let's not forget, behaved with childish petulance when TV3 bagged the rights to last year's Rugby World Cup -- were to pose his question today, he'd get a very different answer.

riveted

Plenty of people would miss TV3, not least the hundreds of thousands riveted to the station's version of The Apprentice. Not only is it TV3's biggest success story, it also proves, beyond doubt, that when The Little Channel That Couldn't Be Bothered is bothered, it's more than capable of punching above its weight.

In spite of RTE's institutionalised indifference to anything that smells of competition, there must be more than a few RTE execs who wish they'd beaten the despised minnow to one of the most valuable franchises in global TV. Why else would the national broadcaster be responding with a counter-punch: namely, its own version of Dragons' Den?

If anyone ever sits down to write a history of Irish television they'll probably identify The Apprentice as the moment when TV3 turned the corner. The truth, however, is that the change didn't come that suddenly. TV3 has been nudging around the corner for some months now -- slowly, yes, but still heading in the right direction.

Already this year we've had Me and the Big C, an excellent, understated series about cancer sufferers, as well as Dirty Money, journalist Paul Williams' ratings-grabbing series about the Criminal Assets Bureau.

The frothy Xpose may not be my particular cup of celebrity pus but it appears to have built up a youthful following in an awkward slot -- right up against the Six-One News on RTE1 -- and has lasted longer than I imagined it would.

And if Bill Cullen on The Apprentice has turned out to be a pleasant surprise, so has the excellent documentary series How the Irish Have Sex, which is a far more worthwhile piece of TV than its skittish title suggests.

There's still an awful lot of rubbishy filler material on TV3, of course. It's still the channel of choice if you like voyeuristic documentaries about the world's tallest/smallest people with eight limbs and two heads.

The daytime schedule is a resistible cocktail of noxious ingredients such as America's Next Top Model, Celeb Air, Style Her Famous and the thoroughly rancid The Jeremy Kyle Show, while Saturday nights are pretty much floor-to-ceiling X Factor.

There are more corners to turn; the signs, though, have been good this year. I've no agenda but if TV3 continues to raise its game that can only be good for everyone, especially viewers.

For the first time in a long time, there might be an alternative to RTE1 that's not called RTE2.

So, what does a TV reviewer watch when he’s off duty? Well. . .

Friday

UNREPORTED WORLD

(Channel 4, 7.35pm)

Ramita Naval reports from South Africa on 'muti' murder: the killing and dismembering of people for body parts, a practice endorsed by witch doctors.

THE AMERICAN FUTURE: A HISTORY

(BBC2, 9pm)

Simon Schama continues his forensic dissection of America's past, present and probable future with a look at the country's attitude to war. Razor-sharp television.

LES PAUL: CHASING SOUND

(BBC4, 9pm)

The pioneering American musician whose greatest gift to aural history was the solid-body electric guitar narrates his own story.

SATURDAY

TV BURP

(UTV, 6.55pm)

Harry Hill, medic-turned-comic, returns for a new series of his strange take on the events of the week.

YOUNG VICTORIA

(BBC2, 8.10pm)

Timewatch documentary about the formidable Queen Victoria and her stormy relationship with her mother.

We are not amused.

SUNDAY

IAN FLEMING: WHERE BOND BEGAN

(BBC1, 6.10pm)

Barely-Bond girl Joanna Lumley (if you blinked you'll have missed her in On Her Majesty's Secret Service) celebrates the centenary of Fleming's birth.

FRINGE

(Sky One, 9pm)

You should be watching this, you fool, because it's brilliant. The trio investigate a man's vision of a terrorist attack.

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